Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Nothing to See Here

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Nothing to See Here

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

From the bloody snuff films released by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to the satirical depiction of the Prophet Muhammad in the French magazine Charlie Hebdo (which led to the Jan. 7 murder of 11 magazine employees by a pair of A1 Qaeda sympathizers), American newspapers and television networks are engaging in a heightened public debate over just how far the press should go in depicting graphic or offensive news.

It's an ironic debate given the radical changes that the traditional news media, particularly print journalism, has undergone in the past several years. A combination of new technology and social media, the decline of paper-based advertising revenue, and shifting generational habits mean that fewer people than ever know or care what news is deemed fit to print by the New York Times or other supposedly agenda-setting media institutions. A 2012 Pew Research poll found that while 48 percent of adults over 65 years old received their news via newspapers, among adults age 18 to 24, that number was only six percent. Seventy-three percent of older Americans, meanwhile, continue to watch TV news as compared to just 29 percent of young adults.

The technology-driven explosion of online media outlets is a far cry from how people consumed news during the Vietnam War, when the editorial boards of three TV networks and a handful of major newspapers and wire services wielded far more influence over how news, especially of a disturbing or controversial content, would be disseminated. As the war became more contentious, television played a vital role in bringing the conflict into American living rooms. In the minds and memories of Americans, for the first time in history, Vietnam thus played out as a series of iconic, incredibly graphic images: a self-immolating monk in Saigon, a South Vietnamese officer summarily executing a restrained Viet Cong guerrilla on the street, heaps of dead villagers in a drainage ditch in My Lai. Reporters were allowed to roam the war zone without restriction; coverage gradually went from uncritical regurgitation of Pentagon press releases to an on-air declaration of deception and stalemate by Walter Cronkite, the nation's most trusted newsman.

Flash forward to the Iraq War, where print and television reporters--themselves largely complicit in the selling of the myth of Saddam's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction--were embedded with allied forces, thus beholden to the military chain of command, including censors, in terms of what it could cover. Unlike Vietnam, there are no iconic images of the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq besides the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue. (A notable exception were the Associated Press's photos of the burned bodies of slain U.S. contractors being hung from a bridge in Fallujah at the beginning of the anti-U.S. insurgency.) In Vietnam, photos of dead American soldiers zippered up in plastic "body bags" became emblematic of the war's high cost; with Iraq and Afghanistan, Pentagon censors reftised to allow news photographers to snap shots of flag-draped coffins being unloaded from cargo planes returning from the war's killing fields.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. has been in a permanent state of war, with American forces fighting ground battles in two countries, as well as conducting covert operations involving Special Forces in the Horn of Africa, trans-Sahara, the Central African Republic, and the Philippines, to name a few. Our government has dropped bombs, fired missiles and conducted drone attacks on at least seven countries from Yemen to Pakistan. Because it is too dangerous for American journalists to operate in most of the countries, the U.S. public has been largely shielded from any sense of the carnage wrought in its name. Not to mention, too expensive: According to a 2011 study by the American Journalism Review, foreign coverage in daily newspapers over the past 25 years has fallen by 53 percent. …

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